Pandemic cited as child porn complaints spike

Predators target children on their cell phones and other digital devices with time on their hands because schools are closed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has yet another dark side: child pornography complaints have doubled since March.

The reason: children are home from school and frequently on their cell phones and other digital devices, making them more susceptible to overtures from predators.

New York State Police report the number of complaints in March, April and May jumped from 1,339 last year to 2,640 for the same period this year. (No local data is available.)

The increase is even more pronounced nationally, up from about 3 million last year to 7.7 million during the same period this year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“The challenge we’re seeing, more with kids during stay at home orders, is that they’re spending a lot more time online,” said Ed Suk, executive director of the center’s regional office in Rochester. “They’re not out in their community, not going through their regular school days, playing sports and those activities.”

Suk said there’s a concern that the number of complaints is understated, as many tips about child exploitation or abuse come from mandated reporters such as teachers, doctors and child care workers. 

“When stay at home orders are lifted and kids get back into normal routines, we are very concerned there’s going to be a very large volume of disclosures that will come out about what they experienced when they were in that lockdown environment.” Suk said.

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When kids are online – the amount of time they’re spending online, the amount of kids online, certainly increases the likelihood that you’re going to see victimization.” 

The complaints of child exploitation involve videos or images of children participating in sexual acts or being naked or sexually abused, and taken for the sake of someone getting sexual pleasure from it.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz closed schools March 15 and districts around the region and state shifted to distance learning – where children access coursework and communicate with teachers and other students through online platforms. 

Since then, state and national cybertip lines saw major increases in child exploitation complaints. 


 

 

 

 


Suk attributes the increase in cases in March partly to stay at home orders. A number of tips were also triggered by one particular video of sexual abuse that went viral.; complains rolled in as people worked to identify the children in the incident. 

“But then with the huge increase in April really, I think, what we’re seeing is kids being approached more online,” Suk said. “You put more computers out there in the hands of kids, more access to online resources, you’re going to see victimization go up significantly because the predators are looking for the kids.” 

Investigative Post reported in February that child pornography cases have increased locally and nationally in recent years. Prosecutions by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Buffalo and the Erie County District attorney jumped from 44 in 2017 to 80 last year.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported receiving 18 million tips to its hotline last year. For comparison, 565,000 total tips were received between 1998 and 2008. Based on current trends, it appears likely the center will surpass the mark from last year, according to Suk.   

Messaging apps like Kik and games like Fortnite are especially problematic, said Michael Hockwater, a detective on the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force in Buffalo. He blames the ease of access for the boom in child pornography images that are available online. 

Another factor, according to Suk: the quarantine has limited physical access to children, so predators have turned to digital devices to obtain photos and otherwise make contact with children.

“The problem is not going away,” Hockwater told Investigative Post in February. “It’s become easier for offenders to victimize kids.”